July 28, 2005

Shuttle Discovery to dock with space station

By Jeff Franks

HOUSTON (Reuters) - Astronauts prepared to dock the shuttle
Discovery with the International Space Station on Thursday in
what may be the last visit for some time after NASA again
grounded its problem-plagued shuttle fleet.

The two spacecraft were scheduled to hook up for a week
while the Discovery crew makes space-station repairs and brings
food and supplies to the two-man station crew.

What was supposed to have been the shuttle's triumphant
return to the space station for the first time since November
2002 was overshadowed by NASA's decision on Thursday that it is
still not safe to fly.

The U.S. space agency said flying debris captured on video
at Tuesday's launch was remindful of what brought down Columbia
on Feb. 1, 2003, and showed that the debris problem was not
fixed after 2 1/2 years of work and more than $1 billion in
expenditures to improve safety.

Images showed at least three areas on Discovery's external
fuel tank where chunks of insulation foam came off, including
one almost as big as the piece that struck Columbia.

The foam was not believed to have hit Discovery, but its
existence meant it was back to the drawing boards for NASA,
said shuttle program manager Bill Parsons.

"Until we're ready, we won't fly again," he said. "I don't
know when that might be."

Tuesday's Discovery launch was the first shuttle mission
since the three-shuttle fleet was grounded after Columbia.

A 1.67 pound (0.75-kg) piece of insulating foam from
Columbia's external fuel tank broke loose at launch on Jan. 16,
2003, and struck the left wing, causing a hole in the heat
shield that doomed the shuttle during re-entry 16 days later.

As Colombia glided toward Florida, superheated gases from
the earth's atmosphere entered the breach and caused the
orbiter to disintegrate over Texas, killing its seven


Discovery has some troubling nicks in protective tiles on
its belly, but deputy shuttle program director Wayne Hale said
they are not believed to be a threat to the spacecraft.

"The good news is that the orbiter Discovery appears to be
in good shape," he said.

Discovery's crew was supposed to take haven in the space
station and await rescue by shuttle Atlantis if the orbiter was
damaged beyond repair at launch,

Hale said the chances of that being needed were "remote."
Parsons said if it did come to pass, NASA would have to make
the "hard decision" to send Atlantis up.

NASA has more safety examinations of Discovery scheduled in
the 12-day mission, including one just before the space station

In a maneuver planned before launch, shuttle commander
Eileen Collins will steer Discovery into a slow back flip 600
feet below the space station while station crewmembers Sergei
Krikalev and John Phillips snap pictures using telephoto

Another extended suspension of flights will be a big blow
to the still-unfinished space station, a $95 billion project
which depends on the shuttle to ferry in the modules used to
piece the international project together.

Since Columbia, Russian spacecraft have been used to change
crewmembers and bring supplies, but construction has come to a

Discovery will deliver 15 million tons of supplies ranging
from food to light bulbs to new laptop computers and will bring
back junk from the station.

Shuttle astronauts Steve Robinson and Japan's Soichi
Noguchi will perform three spacewalks, during which they will
replace and repair balky gyroscopes that keep the space station
stable and attach an external platform to be used for storage.

They will also test still-experimental techniques to repair
damage to the shuttle exterior.